It’s Friday, June 1, in New York City

[Image: Standing outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by City of Sound].

It’s that time of day again: I’m on my way south across the island, heading down to the Storefront for Art and Architecture, for Day 4 of Postopolis!
Dan Hill has continued his coverage of the event, so if you’re looking for regular updates – as opposed to my half-efforts here, full of nothing – I’d urge you all to go check out City of Sound. There’s also a Postopolis! Flickr pool, if you’re looking for some images of the proceedings – and I promise to start posting normal BLDGBLOG content as soon as possible (and I apologize to readers who are tired of these meager asides!).

[Image: DJ /rupture, speaking yesterday at the Storefront; in some late-breaking but huge news, /rup will be spinning the Postopolis! closing party, Saturday night! Photo by Nicola Twilley].

Meanwhile, here’s today’s schedule:

1:30pm: Julia Solis
2:10pm: Andrew Blum
3:00pm: William Drenttel, Tom Vanderbilt, and Michael Bierut
4:10pm: James Sanders
4:50pm: David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang
5:30pm: Kevin Slavin
6:10pm: Eric Rodenbeck
6:50pm: Laura Kurgan
7:30pm: Lawrence Weschler

Hope to see you there! And don’t forget the Saturday night closing party, with live sets by DJ / rupture and N-RON.

The TransHab: “interiors in space”

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module, attached to the International Space Station. TransHab designed by Constance Adams; image found via HobbySpace].

Last week, Metropolis posted a short article by Susan Szenasy discussing a recent talk given by NASA architect Constance Adams.
Adams designed the TransHab, an inflatable housing module that connects to the International Space Station. Her work, Szenasy explains, shows how architects can successfully “interface people with… interiors in space” – with strong design implications for building interiors here on Earth.

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module; image via HobbySpace].

As Metropolis reported way back in 1999, Adams’s “path to NASA was a circuitous one. After graduating from Yale Architecture School in the early 1990s, she worked for Kenzo Tange in Tokyo and Josef Paul Kleiheus in Berlin, where she focused on large projects, from office buildings to city plans. But in 1996, when urban renewal efforts in Berlin began to slow down, she returned to the United States.”
That article goes on to explain how her first project for NASA was undertaken at the Johnson Space Center; there, she worked on something called a “bioplex” – a “laboratory for testing technologies that might eventually be used” on Mars, Metropolis explains. The bioplex came complete with “advanced life-support systems” for Mars-based astronauts, and it was thus Adams’s job “to design their living quarters.”
A few years later came the TransHab module. If one is to judge from the architectural lay-out of that module, we can assume that domesticity in space will include “bathrooms, exercise areas, and sick bays,” as well as “sleeping and work quarters,” an “enclosed mechanical room,” a few “radiation-shielding water tanks,” and even a conference room with its own “Earth-viewing window.”

[Image: The TransHab, cut-away to reveal the exercise room and a “pressurized tunnel” no home in space should be without. Image via Synthesis Intl. (where many more images are to be found)].

For more info about Adams and her architectural work, see this 1993 interview (it’s a pretty cool interview, I have to say); download this MP3, which documents a conversation between Constance Adams and journalist Andrew Blum (the latter of whom will be speaking at Postopolis! next week); or click way back to BLDGBLOG’s slightly strange, and now rather old, look at Adams (and many other astro-structural subjects) in Lunar urbanism 3.
So I’ll just end here with a few images, all of which are by Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.. According to Metropolis, these “show the different levels and spatial configurations for SEIM, a semi-inflatable vehicle created for both flight and planetary or lunar deployment.”
It was developed for NASA; you’re looking at Level 3.

[Images: Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.].

Of Cars, Dogs, Golf, and Bad Feng Shui: An Interview with Jeffrey Inaba

[Image: Jeffrey Inaba].

Jeffrey Inaba teaches architectural theory and design studios at Columbia (where he is the founding director of C-Lab) and SCI-Arc (where he and Paul Nakazawa run SCIFI, the Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives); he heads Inaba Projects; and he regularly contributes to a wide variety of publications, not the least of which is Great Leap Forward: The Harvard Design School Project on the City.
BLDGBLOG spoke to Inaba about… well, about as many topics as we could fit into one phone conversation: Archigram, sports cars, golf courses, feng shui, Donald Trump, Saddam Hussein, penthouse design and the rise of Tribeca, hedge fund managers, spatial surplus, sustainable development in China, the economics of suburbia and global megaslums, dog training as a political metaphor, science fiction novels as a form of architectural research – etc. etc.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: With Volume 10 you call for more “agitation” in architectural discourse. Could you go into this a bit more? For instance, do we need a new Archigram or another Superstudio? Where will this agitation come from?

Jeffrey Inaba: It’d be great if there was another Archigram or Superstudio. [laughs] I certainly wouldn’t be against it. I think the reason for producing an entire issue on agitation was specifically a response to consensus culture. There’s a collective feeling within the US that it is important to agree on things, to find points that can be discussed or shared, and that differences should be smoothed over by elevating the discussion in a way that diminishes an opposition on another level. That seems to be triggered by an underlying sense that you’re either with us or you’re against us.

What seems ridiculous about that – not even on a content level, but on a deeper, structural level – is that these alliances and antagonisms are based on the least substantial of terms. So if only by two people agreeing with each other on a review, as critics, that somehow this would be the basis for an alliance seems ridiculous – just as not agreeing on a topic could trigger a war between two perceived points of view or ideologies.

Furthermore, when alliances are developed in tenuous terms like this, it doesn’t necessarily generate more in-depth discussion. You might have somebody who, for lack of a better example, is interested in technology, and they might form bonds with somebody who does, say, 17th century history – but strange bedfellows like this aren’t generating a more interesting discussion. There’s more of a symbolic alliance, rather than one that’s actually productive.

In that sense, it seems important to reintroduce the term agitation because its meaning has been diminished: it now means trouble-maker or rabble-rouser, or somebody who is disruptive for ill-founded reasons. But agitation can be a term that’s much broader: it can be an action that’s earnest, circumspect, interrogative, or subtle – as well as over the top. Our point would be to find means of agitating that aren’t just based upon the appeal of the rhetoric, or the loudness of the preaching. In that sense, we hope to expand the term agitation.

Once you re-introduce it, as well, you can begin to look out for it. That, for example, is how we came to do the piece on Pininfarina. I remember a hair stylist saying once that hair cutting would be so easy if it weren’t for ears. Similarly, designing super-sleek cars would be easy if it weren’t for the engine and the wheels – protrusions or obstructions that are essential to the object at hand and fundamental to what a car is. Hence the grill, the engine block, wheel well – all the things that produce bumps, or aesthetic agitations rather than streamlined forms. When looked at in this way, an entirely new vocabulary can be appreciated with Pininfarina.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: And part of this agitation is your interest in the favela – the slum? In Volume 10 you published a whole travel guide to favelas, called Alibi.

Inaba: Yeah. And it’s definitely not meant in an ironic way. The idea with Alibi was that you could produce urban research in the form of a travel guide, so that it could be readable for people other than architects. It was produced to raise architectural and urban issues – like dealing with water run-off, plumbing, garbage, and property boundaries – and to present that in a format digestible to others.

In that sense, the genre of a travel guide is intentionally meant as a way to convey architectural information.

[Image: The cover page of Alibi, from Volume 10. For more on favelas, meanwhile, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s earlier, two-part interview with Mike Davis].

BLDGBLOG: But why favelas, in particular?

Inaba: You know, some of my other work has been on suburbia, and the thing that we’re more and more convinced by is that the 21st century megacity will be a space – or urban condition – not defined by 20th century concepts of density or urbanity. Instead, it will be determined by two things: the suburb and the favela – the informal. You can think of LA as a proto-condition for this.

But the places experiencing new architectural forms, new types of rapid growth, alternative patterns of collective development, extreme forms of communication, and a concern for planning stemming from necessity – these are all now happening in areas that are suburban, in areas that are informal. And that includes favelas.

These are the generative elements of the 21st century city.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: Favelas are architecturally interesting – but they’re economically generated. In other words, the architecture – the space – comes second. So where does the favela actually come from? Is a favela formed from the bottom-up, as an organic outgrowth of local conditions? Or is it formed from the top-down – as a kind of architectural symptom of globalization and economic inequality?

Inaba: That’s a really good question. You can find conditions in LA that you might think would be more typical of Mexico City, Cairo, or Lagos – and, yeah, I think you can read that through global capital flows, in the sense that now you have informal communities and suburbs next to one another, covering more area of the world than earlier forms of the city – like Manhattan, London, or Paris.

I’m not so interested in whether it’s top-down or bottom-up – or bottom-down, for that matter – but in acknowledging that there is more of it in the world now than there are 20th century downtowns.

BLDGBLOG: So these informal spaces and cities are sort of self-organizing? They generate more of themselves? They’re both productive and fractal?

Inaba: I don’t see favelas as being self-organizing, or that favelas should be celebrated for their spatial innovation – not at all. Nor do I think of the favela only as a victim of flows of capital investment.

What is interesting is that despite the potential of great amounts of capital to eradicate, favela urbanism is indestructible. It can exist right next to a central, concentrated corporate development. The only other thing that I can think of like that is the suburb.

The two have persistence – an ability to absorb growth and destruction. That used to be what was thought of as unique to the 20th century city. This alone merits why the suburb and favelas needs to be addressed in architecture schools.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: Perhaps you should train architecture students in suburban development! At the very least, that would shine a more architecturally interesting and creative light on all those cul-de-sacs.

Inaba: Another way to put it is that architectural form – what students learn and practice, what architectural programs produce – is focused on one marketplace: the marketplace of building design, not the marketplace of urban development. If the city is more complex and harder to understand at this given moment, because of globalization and environmental pressures, then – now more than ever – architects should be trying to explain it. I’m not sure that the technological investigation of form is the best use of our energy right now.

Now should be the very moment when we try to describe what the city is. It seems that advances in architectural form, as an expression of the contemporary moment, doesn’t in itself help to explain or understand these things.

BLDGBLOG: Changing tack a bit, in Great Leap Forward, much is made of feng shui, golf courses, and the idea of “politics, geography, and spirituality.” Could you tell me a bit more about your interest in this? I’m particularly drawn to the idea of “bad” feng shui – China’s building boom takes on a whole new meaning in this context.

Inaba: Today, in China, environmentalism – meaning eco-friendly cities – is the expression of “politics, geography, and spirituality.” Branding a development as environmentally friendly is both a marketing tool and a political enabler for even greater development.

Urban development in the name of environmentalism, and in the name of eco-friendly urbanism, could very well become the pretext for doing certain types of development that don’t actually reduce the rate of resource consumption: they set up conditions for even more rapid consumption, in the name of being politically, geographically, and spiritually sensitive.

Sustainable development is becoming an unquestioned process, embraced as a positive form of urbanism. It’s being over-used. In that way, it’s producing landscapes of bad feng shui.

BLDGBLOG: So, to some extent, feng shui really just means environmentally friendly?

Inaba: [laughs] Totally.

BLDGBLOG: Sustainability also lends a kind of critical immunity to new building projects – if something’s sustainable, no one wants to critique it. Being carbon neutral is like being handed an aesthetic Get Out of Jail Free card.

Inaba: That’s exactly it – it’s irreproachable as a moral position. For example, Shenzhen has been criticized for being bad urbanism, based on the grounds of taste; it’s said to be ill-planned, quickly developed, and with poorly designed buildings. Meanwhile, other cities are deemed to be better examples of urbanism because of their environmental sensitivity – having a low carbon footprint – but, as such, they’re exempt from other criteria of judgment.

One of the main features of eco-friendly design is its predisposition for suburb-like developments. In order to get large cities to accommodate large populations, in an environmentally sensitive way, why is it that all the projects result in a default language of green space and detached, single-family dwellings?

One of the ways that suburbia is emerging in the megacity is through the rhetoric of ecology: an urbanism of eco-friendly villas. It’s like Laguna Niguel. [laughs] Only it’s happening in China.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: C-Lab has also produced some great work around the idea of excess space, or a kind of spatial surplus. For instance, you interviewed Robert A.M. Stern in Volume 6, and he points out that the quintessential sign of Manhattan luxury living – the penthouse – is actually just an unintended result of extra building space. The penthouse is a creative reuse of leftovers, so to speak. Could you talk about this a bit?

Inaba: There was an article in New York magazine by Jay McInerney about Tribeca now being the most expensive area in New York City – and, for that reason alone, there are people on the Upper East Side who want to move there.

BLDGBLOG: [laughter]

Inaba: His point is that it’s not because of the quality of Tribeca’s architecture, or because of the kinds of spaces you can buy there, or because of the urban experience. If design is said to add value, then it seems to add only fractional value: concentrated high real estate value adds value.

One of the things that’s also clear is that Tribeca now has the most penthouses.

What we wanted to show is that there is a new distribution in the luxury residential building type that responds to the demand for excessive space. If the penthouse used to be the top floor – one floor more exclusive than the other floors – then buildings now have multiple floors of penthouses: they are mostly “penthouses.” The piece shows that some buildings have more “penthouses” than non-penthouses.

Besides just chronicling this excess, we wanted to talk about our inaccessibility as a profession to this level of the city. There is a whole urban experience that we, as architects, don’t have access to. We don’t move in the same spaces, or social circles, or economic spheres. I, myself, don’t know anyone who manages a hedge fund; I don’t know, let alone dine with anyone in the private equity banking business who became super-super-mega-wealthy after Sarbanes-Oxley; I don’t have any access to that.

BLDGBLOG: How does one engage with that, though? Do you organize a house tour, or a photo essay, or some kind of conference between hedge fund managers and their architects, or…?

Inaba: It’s not an issue of gaining entry to this layer of New York for the benefit of architectural commissions, but to understand the economy and spaces of this New York, to be able to grasp what urbanism is today.

Architects can’t be involved in urbanism if we can’t experience it.

Just to reiterate the point: the city is going through a transformation where the most powerful economic stratum is not palpable on the street. In New York, during the banking boom of the late-80s and the tech boom of the 90s, feverish consumption and extreme wealth were evident. But this current period of even greater accumulation is hardly visible. Goldman Sachs gave out $19 billion in bonuses last year – but we don’t see the presence of that wealth in the general urban experience of New York.

So the general issue is less a matter of shaking hands with private equity guys, but figuring out how to respond to our professional dislocation from the city.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, that reminds me of your interview with Kanan Makiya, also from Volume 6, about Baathist architecture. Saddam’s palaces, in a funny way, look like something Donald Trump might build – a kind of baroque desert penthouse. Is there a dictatorial vernacular emerging in architecture today?

Inaba: Actually, Benedict Clouette did that interview – it’s really good. When we were looking at the material later, we were both struck by how humanistic those buildings made Saddam look! [laughs] Meaning that the architecture of state power and the architecture of first world residences don’t seem that far apart. Saddam’s palaces, while they’re really supposed to be about state power, look not so different from houses in New Jersey. And the scale now of residential buildings isn’t so different from the scale of buildings that were once meant to symbolize state power, on an institutional scale.

The dictatorial vernacular is not so far off from the American suburban vernacular.

[Image: Two pages from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: So the palace of the dictator is a kind of McMansion in the desert?

Inaba: Yeah – the scales are the same. It’s a vernacular that could as easily be used in Arizona as by a Baathist regime.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, how did you end up interviewing Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer,” for Volume 10?

Inaba: It’s one of my favorite pieces that we’ve ever done. To some degree, it’s about the relationship between an animal sense and a human sense of the world, and Cesar’s ability to formulate that into a viable political message. He seems to be a person who would be an interesting politician for the US today, because he is overtly advocating domination – the way one animal dominates another within a pack. And, in fact, he wants to run for office.

His point is that, today, the UK and the US are run by weak leaders, leaders who are unstable, who don’t have enough discipline, and who don’t produce stability. By soliciting fear, they produce instability. So the way to respond to that is to create a clear form of dominance. For Cesar, assertiveness and physicality – the way a pack leader dominates a pack – is the type of logic that he wants to extend into politics. And he’s serious about it. If his initial popular appeal is that his methods are about this type of training exercised on your dog, I think the appeal of his show – which goes beyond dog owners – is that it affirms assertiveness in humans. It’s about the individual’s ability to be assertive.

I think it’s noteworthy to publish him because he wants to extend this onto a political level. For him, domination, physical assertiveness, discipline – these are all forms of a higher level of affection.

[Image: A page from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: The cruel father.

Inaba: In that sense, it’s not related to the urban, or to architecture; but we thought it was a really good articulation of a strategy of power – and so it was relevant to Volume magazine.

BLDGBLOG: Actually, one more question: I’m curious what you think about using other genres for architectural research. It seems that everyone today just writes long, footnoted articles for the same handful of academic journals – then they complain about lack of audience. But why don’t they write science fiction novels, or comic books, or even screenplays? Or a blog, for that matter? Do you think that these other, less traditional genres have any value for the future of architectural research?

Inaba: Absolutely. I think the point of issue 10 is that, for all the investment in architectural aesthetics at the moment, it seems like the terms that we use to discuss or define those aesthetics are surprisingly limited. We only have a few words to describe architectural form. By thinking through different genres – and their terms – we could expand our aesthetic vocabulary.

So you could operate on the level of a science fiction novel – but you could just as well embrace the travel guide, or the interview, or the photo-collage. These things, by their very diversity, have the ability to generate a range of aesthetics. We want to operate in other guises. When you look at a place through the lens of a travel guide, there are things about architecture that can be deciphered and explained with greater ease.

I think what’s important is our ability to extract things from the genre of science fiction, not to reproduce the look and feel of science fiction as a genre.

As architects, we can go beyond aesthetics – in the sense of beautiful buildings, or interesting buildings, or new buildings – and find public consequences both for architecture and architectural discussion.

• • •

Thanks to Jeffrey Inaba, for the conversation and for inviting me to critique some student projects at SCI-Arc this week, and to Benedict Clouette for setting all these interviews up in the first place.

The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch

[Image: Inside the Pantheon; via].

Through both film editing and sound design, Walter Murch has worked literally behind the scenes of Hollywood to give shape and structure to the films we see. In the process, he’s won three Academy Awards; he’s directed his own feature-length film, the creatively subversive Return to Oz; and he’s worked with some of the greatest directors of modern times, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, on some of their greatest films, from The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now to The Conversation and THX-1138.
But it is due only in part to Murch’s stellar career in film that I wanted to talk to him for BLDGBLOG.
As it happens, Murch’s interests go far beyond the reach of cinema, encompassing architecture, astronomy, music theory, and mathematics – among an almost impossibly broad range of other subjects. When a friend of mine casually mentioned that Walter had “discovered” something about the Pantheon, in Rome, and that this discovery had something to do with Nicolaus Copernicus and the origins of heliocentrism in Western astronomy, I was determined to write about it for BLDGBLOG. Within only a few weeks, Walter and I were in touch.
Of course, Murch is already very well-known as an interviewee; as only one example of this, novelist Michael Ondaatje recorded an entire book’s worth of interviews with Murch, later published under the title The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
That book is never less than fascinating, if frequently enigmatic; at one point Murch claims, for instance, referring to his sound work for film: “If I go out to record a door-slam, I don’t think I’m recording a door-slam. I think I am recording the space in which a door-slam happens.”
Or, continuing that thought:

I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes along with them. I tend not to visualize but auralize, to think about sound in terms of space. Rather than listen to the sound itself, I listen to the space in which the sound is contained.

Murch and I spoke for roughly an hour, and we continued our conversation through email; we managed to discuss the Pantheon, Copernicus, the Mithraic religion of the ancient Mediterranean, urban acoustics, the music of the spheres, Brian Eno, Single Speed Design, the architecture of film, and whether CCTV surveillance of city streets should be considered a new cinematic avant-garde.
It’s worth noting, finally, that this interview goes online only a few hours before Murch is due to speak at an event in San Francisco, co-organized by BLDGBLOG and Chronicle Books; there, he will be discussing his thoughts on Copernicus and the Pantheon in more detail.

• • •

[Image: Exterior view of the Pantheon].

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with your research into the Pantheon – in particular, how that building’s structure may have influenced the astronomical theories of Nicolaus Copernicus. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Walter Murch: Well, the Pantheon still holds its mysteries: Who designed it? How was it used? What does it mean? But Copernicus still has his mysteries, too: Why did someone like him, a high official in the Church, 500 years ago, dedicate his life to the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun? Not only did this contradict common-sense and the teaching of the Bible, but it also capsized 1400 years of Ptolemaic, geocentric astronomy. And Ptolemy, it turns out, was writing his classic book on astronomy – the Almagest – while the Pantheon was being built.

At any rate, Copernicus was born in 1473. He studied astronomy at the University of Bologna, along with medicine and law, and while he was there he became an assistant to Domenico Novara. Novara was a well-known astronomer who may have exposed Copernicus to the 3rd century BC theories of Aristarchus.

Aristarchus believed that the Sun was the center of the universe. He also believed that the Earth not only revolved around the Sun, along with all the other planets, but that it rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, and that the moon, in turn, revolved around the Earth. So – more than two thousand years ago – Aristarchus described the solar system essentially the way we conceive of it today; yet his theory was rejected at the time, and his writings were subsequently lost.

Scholars in the Renaissance were only able to learn about Aristarchus through a book called The Sand Reckoner, by Archimedes, where Aristarchus’s theory is described – but it’s used as the premise for an impossibly large universe. Aristarchus’s heliocentrism is almost certainly the source of Copernicus’s inspiration – but why did Copernicus take it seriously when no one else did?

In 1500, a Jubilee year, Copernicus took time off from his studies in Bologna and he moved to Rome. This is where the Pantheon comes in. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that if you were a young man of 27, footloose in Rome, the Pantheon would be high on your list of places to visit: it was probably the most famous building in the world at that time – the only intact structure from Ancient Rome – and it featured the world’s largest dome: 142 feet in diameter. It remains, to this day, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.

The Pantheon had survived mainly because it was consecrated in 609, yet the overwhelming feeling when you walk into that building is pagan: a series of concentric circles surrounding a single bright source of light – which is the oculus in the center of the dome. It’s pretty certain that the Pantheon was designed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Hadrian was a Mithraist – a worshipper of the Sun.

The only writing about the Pantheon from around the time it was built appears in the History of Rome, by Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius mentions that some people believed the name Pantheon (which is Greek for all gods) came from the statues of the many different gods which decorated the building, “but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.”

That powerful image of the central source of sunlight surrounded by a series of concentric circles must have been an overwhelming experience for Copernicus, primed by his knowledge of Aristarchus. He would have been standing in a church (St. Mary All Martyrs) built 1400 years earlier as a pagan temple, looking up at Aristarchus’s theory “in the flesh” so to speak.

[Image: The dome of the Pantheon, a “celestogramme” by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Are there any writings or images by Copernicus that might prove he interpreted the building this way?

Murch: There is a drawing in Revolutions, at the end of Chapter Ten, where Copernicus, for the first time, schematically illustrates his conception of the Universe. It’s a series of concentric circles, the outermost being the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars,” with progressively smaller circles representing the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury. In the center, of course, is the dot of the Sun. Copernicus’s exact words accompanying the drawing are significant:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the Sun. For in this most beautiful temple (in hoc pulcherimo templo) who could place this lamp in another or better position than the center, from which it can light up the whole at the same time? For, is not the Sun called ‘the lantern of the universe’ and, ‘its mind’ and by others ‘its ruler’? Hermes Trismegistus calls the Sun ‘a visible god’, and Sophocles’ Electra calls it ‘the all-seeing’. Thus indeed, as though upon a royal throne, the Sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.

What leaps out from that text are the allusions to this beautiful temple, illuminated by a central lamp – and lantern was the architectural term used in Copernicus’s time to refer to the central opening in a dome – which lights up the whole. Then there are the classical references to Hermes Trismegistus and Sophocles. These are not the words of a cautious medieval ecclesiastic, but someone deeply influenced by the ancient pre-Christian world.

[Image: A diagram of the planetary orbits, by Nicholas Copernicus].

BLDGBLOG: So, in that passage, he was simultaneously describing the structure of the Pantheon and his theory of the solar system?

Murch: In a sense.

Inspired by that description, I then superimposed Copernicus’s drawing over an image of the Pantheon’s dome – and found that the ratios of the circles in his drawing and the ratios of the circles of the Pantheon line up almost exactly. Seeing that alignment was one of those wonderful moments where you suddenly feel a strong current of connection with the past.

[Image: A superimposition, by Walter Murch, of Copernicus’s diagram of planetary orbits over a celestogramme of the Pantheon by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Wow! That’s not just a coincidence? Copernicus actually meant for that to happen?

Murch: The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but there is no reference to the Pantheon in any of Copernicus’s correspondence or in the various manuscript versions of de Revolutionibus – so we will probably never know for sure.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating thought: that this magnificent temple, built 1400 years before Copernicus ever saw it, designed by a pagan, Sun-worshipping Roman emperor, and later transformed into a church, may have had secretly encoded within it the idea that the Sun was the center of the universe; and that this ancient, wordless wisdom helped to revolutionize our view of the cosmos.

BLDGBLOG: As far as the organization of the solar system goes, you’ve also been doing some interesting work with Bode’s Law, which has to do with finding a mathematical pattern in the orbits of the planets. How did you first discover that Law, and where is your research going?

Murch: Well, it was something I ran across a number of years ago in Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers – a history of our conception of the universe from ancient Greece through Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to Newton. Bode’s Law is just mentioned as a footnote.

Kepler, in particular, had been obsessed with finding a pattern in the orbits of the planets – his famous Three Laws were discovered almost incidentally along the way to that goal, and he would probably be very upset to find that we remember him for his those laws (which he did not number or particularly esteem) and that we’ve forgotten the planetary harmonics to which he devoted his life. But, even by the middle of the 1600s, Kepler’s harmonies were considered a lost cause.

Then, sometime in the 1760s – more than a hundred years after Kepler – a German professor of physics inserted a formula into a French book he was translating: a simple bit of algebra which seemed to indicate there was, indeed, a pattern to the planetary orbits. That professor was Johann Titius, and his formula was later appropriated and published by the director of the Berlin observatory, Johann Bode. Bode had a much bigger megaphone than Titius, so the formula became known as Bode’s Law – but it should really be named after Titius.

When I read Sleepwalkers I was right in the middle of finishing a film – and it was odd, because I was under a tight deadline, but this idea really got under my skin. So at 11:30 at night I started fooling around with the Bode numbers, and within half an hour, I came up with a formula that generated the same set of ratios, yet was different from the original – and that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up! That was what started me down this road, about ten years ago.

[Image: The rings of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: What’s the specific idea behind the Law itself? In other words, what exactly is Bode’s Law?

Murch: It’s a relatively simple exponential function, sprinkled with a few arbitrary constants – you put whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) in at one end and a series of different numbers come out the other (.4, .7, 1.0, 1.6, etc.). It turns out that these new numbers are very close to the average distances of the planets from the Sun, measured in Astronomical Units (AU). For instance, the Earth is (by definition) 1 AU from the Sun. Bode’s Law says that there should be a planet at .7 of that distance – and Venus is actually found at .72 AU.

Titius’s formula not only correctly described – to within a few percentage points – the average distances of the six planets known at the time, but it also predicted that there should be planets at certain distances where there seemed to be empty space. Then, in 1781, Uranus was discovered – the first planet ever to be discovered with a telescope – and its average distance turned out to be 19.2 AU, within 2% of the predicted 19.6. In 1801, Ceres, the first and largest asteroid, was discovered at 2.77 AU, within 1% of the predicted 2.8.

It was a kind of astronomical apotheosis: Titius’s formula seemed to be both descriptive and predictive: the holy grail of science. It fit all the known planets – even newly-discovered ones. So, even though nobody knew why it worked, Titius’s formula was assumed to be a Law. Unfortunately for Titius, who died in 1796, it became popularly known as Bode’s Law.

Everything was fine for the next fifty years, but then disaster struck: in 1846, another new planet was discovered – Neptune – but it didn’t fit. It should have been at 38.8 AU, but it was orbiting at 30, off by almost 30%.

It was a fatal blow. Bode’s Law fell into obscurity, where it remains to this day. Now, when you take astronomy 101, if Bode’s Law is mentioned at all, it’s presented as a historical curiosity. Or a cautionary tale of wrong thinking – luring unwary astronomers into the swamp of numerology.

But, then, when Pluto was discovered in 1930, it fit to within 2% the orbit where Neptune should have been. So rather than throw the whole thing out because one planet didn’t fit, I thought it would be interesting to set Neptune aside as a renegade and see what I could learn by applying the formula to other orbital systems.

I eventually discovered that there are parts of the formula that are linked to particular and unique aspects of our own solar system – and that these particularities are responsible for some of the arbitrary constants in the formula. I found if I could purify the formula of these constants, then I could also make it simpler and more general, and yet it would still yield the same set of ratios.

[Images: The rings – and a moon – of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: How did you purify it?

Murch: Well, one of the unexamined assumptions in Bode’s Law is that the unit to which everything is mathematically compared is the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This seems perfectly natural – it’s the Astronomical Unit, and the Earth is where we live. But this comparison requires the formula to perform a kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu: it has to generate a series of ratios and compare all of those ratios to the Astronomical Unit.

So it seemed more logical to abandon the Astronomical Unit and just concentrate on the ratios. Once you do that, the formula gets much simpler: it doesn’t have to do two things at once. This new formula is not only simpler, but it’s also lost its “Earth-centricity.” Now you can apply it to other orbital systems – the miniature “solar systems” of the moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, for instance, and you find the same set of ratios cropping up!

Of course, it’s not that the moon systems of those planets somehow duplicate the solar system – they don’t. It’s rather that, underlying all of these moons and planets, there is a pattern of ratios, like the musical ratios underlying a keyboard. Just as you are restricted to playing certain musical ratios on a keyboard, so it seems to be with the arrangements of these moons. Some systems “play” – or occupy – certain orbits that others don’t.

Applying the same formula to different systems is potentially very fruitful. By comparing orbital systems you find that, in each of system, there are a few renegades – like Neptune in our solar system – but each of these is a renegade in the same way as Neptune: all of them fall exactly at the midpoint between two adjacent Bode-predicted orbits. So there is an underlying similarity even to the exceptions.

[Image: Bode-predicted planetary orbits compared to those orbits as they are now scientifically understood].

BLDGBLOG: The “music of the spheres” is perhaps an inevitable metaphor to use here – but I’m curious if you have actually found a real, numerical correspondence between the structure of Western music and the orbits of the planets, or if it’s just a convenient metaphor.

Murch: That’s one of the startling things about this. If I wrote the simplified Bode formula down on a piece of paper and showed it to music theorists, they would ask: “Why are you showing us a formula from the overtone series…?”

In other words, Bode’s Law gives a series of orbital ratios which are mathematically identical to intervals in musical theory. They’re primarily variations on what we call the 7th chord: C, E, G, B-flat. Bode’s predicted ratio between Earth and Mars, for instance, is the same as the 5:8 musical ratio between E and C. And if you divide the distances, in kilometers, of the four Galilean moons by a common denominator you get the notes Ab, E, C, Bb. And so on.

[Image: The moons of Jupiter].

BLDGBLOG: Have you discussed these ideas with actual astronomers? How did they react?

Murch: I’ve given this, as a lecture, in various forms – at the National Convention of Digital Astronomy in Italy in 2004; at NYU in 2005; and then, last year, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I think it was well-received in each case, but it’s still a work-in-progress, and I’m looking for feedback from people who are interested in this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking. For most astronomers it’s hard to contemplate reviving a long-discredited 18th century law of celestial mechanics, let alone the music of the spheres! [laughs] The conventional wisdom about Bode’s Law is that it’s just a fluky coincidence.

[Images: The world as a series of chords; via].

BLDGBLOG: So there are similarities between this and music theory – but what about between this and film theory? Is there a kind of Bode’s Law of film editing? The relationships between scenes and so on?

Murch: I think the common thread to both astronomy and film-editing is this search for patterns. Now, at least as far as we can tell, filmmaking is not amenable to the same kind of mathematical rigor that applies to astronomy [laughs] – there may be a mathematical rigor, but we certainly haven’t discovered what it is yet.

Think how difficult it would be to explain musical notation to someone from ancient Egypt, when they did not even suspect the underlying mathematical laws of harmonics, let alone a way of writing it all down. Instead, for thousands of years, music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved. Music evaporates as soon as it is performed. So this idea – that marks could be made on paper, and that this paper could then be sent hundreds of miles away, allowing different people to play the same music years later – I think would have seemed very strange, even impossible, to people in ancient times.

Maybe someday, though, we’ll turn a conceptual corner and suddenly discover the equivalent of musical theory and notation in film. Maybe we are still “Ancient Egyptians” in that regard.

BLDGBLOG: When you’re actually editing a film, do you ever become aware of this kind of underlying structure, or architecture, amongst the scenes?

Murch: There are little hints of underlying cinematic structures now and then. For instance: to make a convincing action sequence requires, on average, fourteen different camera angles a minute. I don’t mean fourteen cuts – you can have many more than fourteen cuts per minute – but fourteen new views. Let’s say there is a one-minute action scene with thirty cuts, so that the average length of each is two seconds – but, of those thirty cuts, sixteen of them will be repeats of a previous camera angle.

Now what you have to keep in mind is that the perceiving brain reacts differently to completely new visual information than it does to something it has seen before. In the second case, there is already a familiar template into which the information can be placed, so it can be taken in faster and more readily.

So with fourteen “untemplated” angles a minute, a well-shot action sequence will feel thrilling and yet still comprehensible: just on the edge of chaos, which is how action feels if you are in the middle of it. If it’s less than fourteen, the audience will feel like something is lacking, and they’ll disengage; if it’s more than fourteen, so much new information is being thrown at the audience that they’ll also disengage, though for different reasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue scenes seem to need an average of four new camera angles a minute. Less than that, and the scene will seem flat and perfunctory; more than that, and it will be hard for the audience to concentrate on the performances and the meaning of the dialogue: the visual style will get in the way of the verbal content and the subtleties of the actors’ performances.

This rule of “four to fourteen” seems to hold across all kinds of films and different styles and periods of filmmaking.

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the idea of music and sound for a moment, are there any places or buildings that you’ve visited, anywhere in the world, that particularly seemed to highlight the connection between a space and the sounds that occur in it? A kind of acoustic urbanism, where how a place sounds totally transforms what you see happening there?

Murch: Actually, I had that exact experience – but it was while watching a film. [laughter] Grand Central Station had been used as a location for one of the scenes. And this was despite the fact that I grew up in Manhattan, had been in Grand Central many times, and had developed an interest in sound recording as a teenager. But I was deaf to the kind of acoustic urbanism you’re speaking of until I saw Seconds by John Frankenheimer, in 1965.

There was just a single hand-held shot gliding down the main staircase, but accompanied by this…. bwoooaaahmmmm… the sound of that great room in all its wonderful complexity. It hit me very hard, emotionally, even though in retrospect it was quite obvious: the realization that you could join a certain tonality with a certain architectural space to create an emotion in the audience. And, if you wanted to, that you could then manipulate or distort that tonality to create a different sense of the visual space and a different emotion.

I’ve been pursuing that idea ever since. On every film I try to think as deeply as I can about the implied acoustic space of each scene; I then try to tailor the reverberant quality of the sound, and the tonality, to the spaces that we’re looking at. It’s endlessly fascinating, particularly because this technique flies “below the radar” of the audience. The filmmaker can have an effect on the audience without the audience knowing where that effect is coming from. Which I would guess is something that architects enjoy playing with, too.

[Images: Grand Central Station; via].

BLDGBLOG: As far as an acoustically rich space goes, is there a specific place – or a building or a landscape – where you like to record sounds for use in a film? How does the actual space affect the sounds you can record in it?

Murch: Well, first of all, I record a sound without any atmospheric envelope around it. I then take that recorded sound and find an acoustic space that is as close as possible to the acoustical space in the film; I play the sound in that space; and I record the resulting reverberation on another device, placed to extract the maximum reverberation. Then, in the final mix, I have the ability to blend those two sounds: the “dry” sound itself, alongside a sound which is almost all reverberation.

In musical terms, you could say it’s like the relationship between the string of the violin and the reverberation and amplification added by the body of the violin itself.

By first separating and then balancing those two elements together, I can custom-fit what seems to be the right dimension of sound implied by the space on screen. If you have too much reverb, and you don’t hear enough of the original sound itself, the result is too diffuse and ethereal to be realistic – but sometimes that lack of realism is exactly what you want. On the other hand, if you play proportionately too much of the dry sound, it doesn’t seem to connect to the space you’re looking at. But maybe that’s exactly what you want – that kind of dislocation. It all depends on the dramatic intent of the moment. But these two elements give you the handles to control the final result.

Over the last forty years, this time-consuming technique of physically “worldizing” the sound has been gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated digital techniques, though the principle is the same. Now we can record a digital “snapshot” of a real acoustic space, using tone bursts and frequency sweeps, and then impose the resulting parameters on any sound we want, back in the studio.

BLDGBLOG: In a still unpublished interview I did with a Boston-based architecture firm called Single Speed Design, I asked one of the principal designers whether he liked ambient music – and his answer was interesting. He said that he didn’t like ambient music at all because it already included all the reverb, echo, and other effects that should have been introduced by the space in which the music was played. In other words, ambient music does the work of architecture for you, on the level of acoustics.

Murch: Exactly. He was reiterating, in an architectural sense, exactly what we do as a sound recordists.

BLDGBLOG: Another anecdote I think is interesting here comes from the British composer Brian Eno. Eno once said that he would make field recordings in different parks around London, then listen to the tapes until he’d memorized them – the way you would memorize a Beatles song. So he would know exactly when the church bell rang, and the mother called out to her child, and the birds flew overhead – or a distant truck rumbled by. He memorized the space according to the sounds that occurred within it.

Murch: There’s a wonderful essay by Michelangelo Antonioni, notes for a film that he was going to make in New York. To familiarize himself with the acoustic space of Manhattan (where he had never made a film) he sat in a room 34 stories up in a hotel somewhere on Fifth Avenue, writing down exactly what he heard over a period of three hours from dawn through rush hour. He came up with the most wonderful metaphors for sounds that were mysterious and unfamiliar to him, but which would be run-of-the-mill to a New Yorker. It’s a great read: a kind of meditative poetry, or song, just like Brian Eno said. It can evoke a whole series of emotional responses if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, is there a specific place, like Leicester Square or some forest near San Francisco, where you thought to yourself: I could do this better – I could make this place sound better?

Murch: [laughs] Back in the late 60s we used to think of hiding a series of playback devices around a house to improve the sounds of the doors closing, the toilets flushing, and so on. Creating a real-life alternate acoustic universe.

Certainly the dominant thing that’s happened over the last hundred years is the universal spreading of white noise – just the general mush of traffic, air-conditioning, and jet planes. Whereas if you were in Leicester Square a hundred years ago, it might have been just as noisy – but the sounds would be more specific, less mushy and ill-defined because of the lack of the internal combustion engine and the constant whir of rubber tires on asphalt. For a number of years Aggie and I lived very near a freeway, on a Sausalito houseboat, and that constant mushy sound eventually became a kind of water-torture for me.

So I don’t have a specific answer for your question – but, generally, it would be to try to find some way to eliminate the white noise and to make people more sensitive to the individual sources of sound and reverberations within the space. Church bells can do that: they attract the ear with their tonality and reverberation, making you aware of the space between you and the church, and making you less aware of the underlying white noise.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) gets to know his surveillance equipment; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m curious how you, as a film editor, see the rise of video surveillance – CCTV – in cities around the world. It seems that cinema has become the default condition of urban security. So I have two questions: do you think that a new kind of cinematic avant-garde is evolving in the control rooms of private security firms? In other words, these epic, nine-hour shots of parking lots seem more Warholian than Andy Warhol. And, second: if you were suddenly faced with all of the surveillance footage generated in a city for a day, do you think you could edit it into a convenient, albeit imaginary, narrative? You could take all those non-events and edit them into something – with action, and a storyline, and rhythm?

Murch: Well, there was a short film made a few years ago where the filmmaker had worked out the location of all the surveillance cameras along a cross-section of London, and how many of those cameras were operated by the municipal authorities. If the cameras were operated by the city, then he could get access to the footage. So he mapped out a pedestrian trip for himself across town knowing that, at every moment he would be on CCTV: as soon as he was out of range of one camera, he would come into focus on another. So he walked the walk, wrote to all the relevant authorities, got the footage, and then edited it all together into a continuous narrative. It’s very amusing in a dystopian, Warholian kind of way. You only “get” the joke after a few minutes of watching.

But George Lucas’s THX-1138 was kind of like that, except it was made in 1971. Much of the action takes place on video surveillance cameras. In fact, the job of the girl in the film is to monitor banks of surveillance cameras. She eventually gets fed up, stops taking her Prozac, or whatever, and tries to escape this completely video-monitored world – which, it turns out, is completely underground because of some disaster that had happened on the surface many years earlier.

Also similar, in some ways, is The Conversation – which is about audio surveillance – made around the same time. Part of the visual style of that film was a dispassionate “surveillance camera” look. There are a number of moments in the film where Gene Hackman walks into the shot, lingers for a moment, and then he walks out – but the camera doesn’t follow him or cut, as it normally would. Until, maybe five or ten seconds later, it slowly pans left, in a very mechanical way, over to where he is, and then it watches him for a while. But then he gets up and moves out of range again, and so on.

This is all in 35mm, not video, but the effect is disorienting just the same – perhaps even more so. It’s as if the camera has a motion-detector behind it, not an intelligence. It will stay still as long as there is activity – but then, if it detects a lack of activity, it will wait five seconds before searching out where the activity might have gone. The film both begins and ends like that – a long slow mechanical zoom at the beginning, then ending on an oscillating camera that pans back and forth mindlessly. And there are a number of scenes in the middle that are shot similarly.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) realizes his apartment is bugged; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: So do you think that video surveillance is a kind of unacknowledged form of cinema, or even a counter-Hollywood on the rise? The next avant-garde?

Murch: Something may be emerging. For instance, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is similar in its use of the simultaneous action of a four-way split screen telling four stories which sometimes interconnect.

You know, the other aspect of this is that these CCTV images are recycled and abandoned regularly. They are preserved for a certain length of time, and then they’re obliterated if there is no call for them. There is a temporality to it all which I think needs to be taken into account. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how rapidly this technology has spread – for economic reasons that have nothing to do with creativity. Insurance companies will now put cameras up at intersections where there have been lots of accidents. Then, if there is an accident involving one of their clients, they can use the footage to prove that the other person is at fault. Even when their client may be dead. Especially when he is dead.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Murch: There’s also footage now being made available, showing the July 7 London bombers rehearsing their terror plan two weeks ahead of time – all caught on publicly-operated CCTV cameras – and it is almost like the first example I mentioned, of crossing London on foot – lots of continuity of action. Except that it was real, and many lives were lost.

One hope I have is that someone will put a HiDef camera into orbit, giving a full-frame view of the Earth spinning below, and this will be made available to everyone on HiDef cable channel 427 or whatever. Then, when plasma screens – or liquid crystal, or digital wallpaper – get large enough, this image can then occupy the entire wall of a room in your house. You’ll be able to go into that room and do other things – read a book, or listen to music, and occasionally look up – and one entire wall of the room is the Earth as it actually is at the very moment that you’re looking at it. It would be as if your room were in orbit.

You’d begin to see Earthly events in context – a volcanic eruption in Peru, or the pollution coming out of New York harbor, or the hurricane threatening New Orleans, floods in Bangladesh – and it will begin to change our awareness of our relationship to the Earth in a profound way, the way the mirror changed our relationship to ourselves, and deepened our sense of identity as individuals. Given the technology that we have today, I’m interested that it hasn’t already happened yet. Given the state of the world at the moment, I hope it happens soon.

[Image: The Earth; image courtesy of NASA].

• • •

I owe an enormous thank you to Walter Murch, both for taking the time to do this interview – even following up via email from London – and for speaking at BLDGBLOG’s event, co-organized by Chronicle Books, tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. If you’re anywhere nearby, be sure to stop in.
I also owe a huge thanks to Lawrence Weschler for first putting me in touch with Walter, and for introducing Walter to BLDGBLOG; and to Anne-Marie Cowsill, Chad Keig, and James Mockoski at American Zoetrope for sending me images from the filming of the The Conversation. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Nicola, for helping edit all this together while we drove up to San Francisco – it was also Nicola who suggested the interview’s title.
Meanwhile, I would urge anyone even remotely interested in the topics covered by this interview to pick up a copy of The Conversations. It’s compulsively readable, and well worth the time. Murch’s own book, In the Blink of an Eye, is particularly useful for anyone working in film.
Finally, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema is a detailed look at the film-editing experience itself, focusing on Murch’s decision to use an off-the-shelf software package in the editing of Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.

Monocular Landscapes, Unmanned Drones, and the Orbital Future of Australian Archaeology

The new magazine Monocle has been getting loads of press lately, from both lovers and haters; and while I can’t necessarily say that I’m one or the other, I will admit to erring on the side of enthusiasm.
There’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve only got the first issue, however, so I’m not exactly an informed reader; and I won’t be performing a rigorous review of the magazine here – discussing its design, intentions, etc. etc. etc. I simply want to point out a few cool articles that have an architectural or landscape bent.
Which is quite a large part of the magazine, as it happens.
First, for instance, we take a brief trip to Paris, where we step down onto the Champs-Elysées and learn that a Citroën “flagship showroom” will soon open up, putting shiny cars with waxed bonnets on display in the window. Then there’s a glossy photo-essay on Le Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, “the city were timing is everything” (they manufacture watches). And there’s a quick visit to the nearby town of Sedrun, Switzerland, where the Gotthard Base Tunnel “is being dug more than 600m below the [earth’s surface], through nearly 58km of Massif stone.” A subterranean train station, located at the midpoint of the tunnel, will be “linked to the surface by the world’s tallest lift.” Long-term readers may note that this same tunnel was mentioned on BLDGBLOG back in December.

[Image: Gotthard Base Tunnel, via Wikipedia].

Awesomely, Monocle then turns its cyclopean gaze onto the empty skies above Kemijärvi, Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, where “a test centre for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” has opened. The test center is run by a firm called Robonic; Robonic “has taken advantage of the vast, virtually unused airspace – a rarity in Europe – above Finnish Lapland to create the only private test centre in the world devoted solely to UAVs.” This would also seem to be the perfect setting for a new novel by J.G. Ballard. Or an Alfred Hitchcock film: unmanned drones fly state secrets across the Arctic Circle…
Meanwhile, could you use these launchers, I wonder, to hurl small buildings into the sky? And if you could, would you do it?
Frustratingly, the article doesn’t ask these questions.

[Image: The launcher for a UAV; courtesy of Robonic].

Moving on, we read, Budapest wants to clean up its river; as it is, the Danube is now “a muddy grey-brown, thanks in part to the sewage gushing out underneath Elizabeth Bridge” – which is a structure, not a woman.
Apparently a “warehouse district” will soon be built, modeled after the Docklands in London.
There’s also a great article on China’s bankrolling of infrastructural construction projects throughout Africa:

China’s influence in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. Across the continent the Chinese are building stadiums, parliaments, roads, offering their expertise as well as they wallet. But China is not just giving to Africa, it is taking too. By the end of next year China will have become the world’s largest importer of oil, and most of it will come from Africa. China is also in desperate need of minerals such as copper, aluminium and iron ore – and African nations are willing to provide them.

This topic was also previously explored on BLDGBLOG.
I’m going on a bit here, I have to say, but there’s even a feature-length exposé on Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL) and their “daylight-redirection” scheme in Rattenberg, Austria – a project Pruned told us about so long ago.
Monocle explains how BLL plans “to create an elaborate system of heliostats and fixed mirrors that could bounce sunlight from a nearby mountaintop on to a hill opposite and into the main street’s gift shops and cafés.” Without these mirrors – and their “secondary mirrors,” in turn – the town would spend “almost four months of the year in the shadow of Rat mountain.” In the shadow of Rat mountain!
The English name alone would cause depression.

[Image: The lighting technologies of Bartenbach LichtLabor].

To test these devices, BLL has constructed an “artificial sky… packed with fluorescent lamps, translucent lamps and LEDs.” It’s referred to as “the ultimate toy for a lighting geek.”
Anyway, I could go on and on – it’s an impressive magazine.
However, I do have to mention, finally, the one article I was actually intending to write about here before I started drinking coffee: on page 70, there’s a short, one-column piece about Alice Gorman.
Gorman is an Australian archaeologist whose university homepage states her interests as “material culture relating to space exploration, including terrestrial launch sites like Woomera (South Australia), Kourou (French Guiana) and Hammaguir (Algeria).” She also studies “orbital debris” and “planetary landing sites.”
Gorman’s got a blog called Space Age Archaeology; she’s got a research abstract online discussing “the archaeological record of human endeavours beyond the atmosphere” (!); and she’s got a downloadable PDF about all of the above. Vaguely similar topics, meanwhile, pop up in an old – and somewhat confusingly typeset – BLDGBLOG post called “White men shining lights into the sky“…
Monocle further tells us that Gorman has been “calling on the United Nations this month to create a protected ‘heritage list'” for orbital objects, “including the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest man-made object in orbit.”
Gorman: “Maybe the only evidence that a country has a right to be in geostationary orbit will be [the presence of] an old satellite.” As space fills up with more and more junk – not to mention working satellites – she says: “It’s not impossible that being able to claim access to an orbit could be a bit like Aboriginal people in Australia being able to say, ‘This is where my ancestors camped.'”

[Image: The International Space Station].

A few things: 1) Last week I interviewed science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson for BLDGBLOG and I asked him about this very topic – directly referencing Monocle: will we yet see an archaeology of space, complete with in-orbit excavation sites, etc. etc. etc.? I hope to have that interview up and public within the month.
2) The very idea of an orbiting, geostationary archaeological site strikes me as so amazing, and so fun to think about, that I almost can’t believe it. What will happen, say, in 400 years, or 900 years, or 1500 years, when the International Space Station has become like Petra or Skara Brae or even Macchu Picchu – the lost and dusty relic of a dead civilization – visited by space tourists with a thing for archaeology, snapping photos of themselves beside old push-button consoles as the sun rises through command windows in the background…? Masked grad students earn summer credits in Forensic Anthropology, roping off portions of the Station, mapping ancient social dynamics as dictated by architectural space…
Ruins in orbit around the earth!
Anyway, I found the first issue of Monocle to be really exciting and well-done, and I’m looking forward to issues two, three, four, etc.
Although… note to Monocle: it is actually cheaper to buy the magazine issue by issue here in the States; subscribing is nearly 30% more expensive.

Agitation, Power, Space: An Interview with Ole Bouman

[Image: Ole Bouman, photographed by Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk].

In May 2005, Ole Bouman and Rem Koolhaas co-founded Volume. Volume was meant as both a magazine and a “global idea platform… dedicated to experimentation and the production of new forms of architectural discourse.” The tenth issue of Volume was published last month.

On April 1, 2007, Ole Bouman will become Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. As he explained in an NAI press release, that role will involve “draw[ing] inspiration from the major spatial challenges of our time.”

In the following interview, Bouman talks to BLDGBLOG about some of these “spatial challenges,” including the role of “agitation” in architecture; who the real audience for architectural journalism might be; the “politics of the spectacular”; unexpected possible side-effects of long-term investment in China; public space and dialogue in post-conflict cities; and the future of the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: The new issue of Volume is themed around agitation. What exactly does that mean in the context of architecture?

Ole Bouman: Agitation is, of course, a very general category. It’s also a cultural term that has strong political connotations. In terms of Volume, as a way of approaching architecture, I think it’s good to cover that theme, to explore agitation in the present state of affairs, and to challenge the accepted formats, the accepted language, the accepted procedures in architecture. It’s a way to expand the architectural imagination in a way.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve said that part of this comes through asking why in architecture.

Bouman: Well, I think it’s very important to acknowledge the necessity of asking why in general. In a culture where people, at a very early stage of their careers, are forced to stick to their subject – or to a specific role – there is, in my view, an extreme urgency to keep asking why. Why, in a way, is a very innocent question and a very childish question – but it is also a very important question. It doesn’t allow you to take things for granted in terms of the role you play in society, or the service you provide to society and things like that. It always brings you back to fundamental questions about your presence, your role, your possibilities – etc. etc. So it’s an extremely important question, and, I would hope, a very obvious question – but, unfortunately, it is not so common anymore.

Posing it so explicitly – pushing forward this notion of why – is itself already a critical act. This is in contrast to presenting what you’re doing, how you are doing it, or – more gossipy – who is doing something. Who and what and how are, of course, very important questions, and there is a big market for those questions: everybody knows that you can make a lot of money presenting what has been done by other people. And there is a growing market now for information about the person behind the built work, the personality behind the building. But for why there is no natural market.

So we are trying to create a momentum behind this spirit, to create a market for why. And if we find sufficient international readers who share this attitude – asking why wherever they go and whatever they do – then maybe this project is sustainable in the long term. But this is an experiment, and we don’t know yet where it will go.

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #6 you refer to the idea that clients are a kind of “necessary evil.” But what’s interesting, in the context of architecture, is that magazines like Dwell and Metropolis are more popular than ever – which seems, at the very least, to indicate that clients read magazines, too. In other words, the people who buy and commission architecture also want to read about architecture. Perhaps, then, the declining popularity of non-mass market architectural criticism simply indicates that critics are not writing for clients anymore – for the people who actually purchase architecture. Instead, they are writing for other architects, and so of course architectural criticism appears to be in decline. Where would Volume fit in, here?

Bouman: It is a good question. Of course, there are at least three different layers of clients. First of all, there are the people with money who want a program to be accommodated by an architectural work – in other words, a client in the traditional sense. But I don’t think that there is a sufficient market for a magazine that would address that specific group.

There is also the client, in terms of the decision-maker. Maybe that person is not about to commission an architect to do something now, but they may ask an architect to do something in the future. And there are decision-makers throughout society – so this is a much larger group. If magazines can address this group of decision-makers specifically, then they already have a bigger reader base.

But, of course, there is also a group of clients that thinks, maybe in a more metaphorical way, about architecture as a way of fulfilling their dreams or serving their interests, in both a material way and in a more idealistic sense. And if our readership is this larger group of people – a very mixed group – then you could say that we already do address clients as the people who ask questions to architects – not just ask for buildings from architects, but who ask architects to engage with these issues. They ask architects to address larger social issues, rather than just supply built stuff. This is a redefinition of architecture, from delivering an object to a definition of architecture that challenges certain issues within a larger cultural strategy.

I think there could be a great dialogue between architects and this group of people. And this spirit and interpretation of the client is perhaps what we are addressing. Of course, the question comes up: is it still necessary to call this group clients and not just the public? But I think it is a nice way to put it: to see those people, this larger group of people engaged in cultural issues, as clients, who ask questions without an immediate budget, without pointing at a specific site, without asking you to accommodate a program. They ask general questions of architecture, and that helps us mobilize architecture beyond one specific purpose.

BLDGBLOG: So we need a new, or different, kind of architect now, in addition to a new way of interacting with clients?

Bouman: Yes – and that brings me to the role of the architect in responding to the client. This can no longer be the reactive way that most architects work with clients. In the first definition I gave of the client, the client is asking a question: Architect X or Architect Y, can you do something for me, because I need you? The output of architecture, in that sense, is very reactive. It can only be based on a program, a budget, a site, an existing location, etc. etc. – but there is always something coming first, before the architectural act.

In the other description I gave of the client, there is more of a shared interest – a common interest – with architects addressing a cultural or political issue from the angle of architecture. So there is a dialogue between different people with a common curiosity, and that can evolve into a completely different output of the architectural discipline. It gives architects a new role, I think, in the long-term, and this may even give architecture its future legitimacy.

If an art form or a scientific discipline, in the end, only boils down to performing a service for other people, then it’s very hard to find cultural legitimacy for that discipline.

BLDGBLOG: Again in Volume #6, you differentiate between cities and what you call “large congregations of architecture.” I’m curious how this distinction plays out on the level of community, or local identity – what a region full of architecture might mean to its inhabitants.

Bouman: If you don’t distinguish between those two – if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture – then you make a very big mistake. First of all, I think it’s necessary for architectural criticism, in that sense, to find the right words for these very complicated processes, to distinguish between two processes or forms that, at first sight, appear the same, but that are, in reality, very different.

When Roemer van Toorn and I wrote the book The Invisible in Architecture in the early 1990s, we were directly reacting to an architecture culture which was taken hostage by the politics of the spectacular. It was an effort to figure out what was behind those fancy or glossy facades which were already highly present in the architectural press – and, in that sense, nothing has changed. There is still an incredible focus – not just among architects, but among clients – on an architecture that is strongest at first sight. The second sight or the third sight is not so important anymore. The invisible in architecture, in that sense, is still an interesting concept to explore: to figure out the intricacies of the architectural profession within a larger political context.

Beyond that, distinguishing between a city and these “large congregations of architecture” may also help architects to clarify their own position, and to see how they might want to work – to help draft a new agenda for the discipline. This brings us back to that notion of agitation. So agitation can also mean: keep going, keep defining alternative agendas that are not well known – or well accepted, or that are just undiscovered – and keep opening windows for other kinds of practice.

[Image: The CCTV building, Beijing, by Rem Koolhaas/OMA].

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #8, you write that China is “an emerging world for which we as yet have no concepts” – but perhaps we do have concepts for it, only we won’t find them in China: we’ll find them within the logic of Western globalization. Do you think, then, that the economic development of China is really just a mutant strain of something that has already happened in the West?

Bouman: Well, there are many angles that could be taken, and I think that’s a good one. It’s strange that China is seen as a new world by many Westerners, a land of opportunity, a place they all want to go. Investors are also looking at China as where they would like to put their money. So, in a way, it’s very similar to concepts we already do have – the concepts of innovation, of career, of success. But also, the concept of a return on your investment, the concept of economic growth – all of those well-known elements of the Western worldview that we all share.

On the other hand, China is still seen as another world. You have to go there. You have to get yourself a portfolio in China. Or you have to start your office, or open a new headquarters there – so there is always the concept of over there, of otherness. I talk to Chinese colleagues, and Chinese businesspeople, and they sometimes openly admit that this persistence of otherness, this persistence of the idea that this is a country that is different from the West, that you can go to, or send your money to, is helping China to take over. To put it dramatically.

So, in terms of capital, for instance, if you just consider the fact that 15 years of boundless investment in China – hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in China, within a very Western paradigm of finding the best returns – is also, in the long-term, undermining the Western position. So, in a Western way of thinking, and from a capitalist point of view, investing in China may actually accomplish the opposite of what investors intended. These kind of paradoxes are hardly understood.

If China is launching a new rocket, or a new satellite, or testing a new space weapon system, suddenly people wake up – but there is this strange anomaly between China as the promised land and China as the latent rival, the opponent, the growing danger. Either people accept that China is becoming part of a larger global system of capital, and so they aren’t afraid to give it its own momentum wherever it goes, or whatever it takes – that is just the price you pay for growth. Or you say: we can no longer accept this – and this might be a moment that is not so far away anymore, a moment of regression or conservatism. Some governments will say that we can no longer go there, maybe, because we would not like to add to the power and culture of China. It’s still very fashionable to host Chinese festivals and to invite Chinese artists and to buy Chinese art – but the moment might not be so far away when we ask: why would we pay for China? If it reinforces or strengthens their power?

I feel sometimes that we are just a little bit away from the moment when this paradox, this anomaly, will erupt into a more existential question. What do we do? Do we keep adding to the strength of China? Or do we go back to this kind of Western chauvinism, or nationalism, and not allow architects, for instance, to work in China or to allow Western investors to invest in China?

I think, in the work of Rem Koolhaas, for instance, this anomaly is almost already on the surface. On the one hand there’s this admiration of the great architect with an incredible track record who goes to build in China, who creates a new monument, a kind of signal of what architecture can do, an incredible achievement. On the other hand, there is this latent, almost open criticism: what does this do for China? Are we giving away our assets to the enemy? I think in the whole discussion around the CCTV Building you see this tension between chauvinism and internationalism, between western interests and the interests of globalization in general, and many other dialectics in the debate being played out through that specific building. That’s why the building is so interesting. As a metaphor, it represents much more than just the fact that it is built for an institution of Chinese power by a powerful western architect; it also reveals something that has to do with the dynamics of our culture – and where architecture can do that, then architecture is gaining in legitimacy.

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your work – and Volume’s work – with cities like Beirut, Ramallah, and Prishtina. Could you tell me a bit more about the role of architecture and urban design in so-called conflict zones?

Bouman: Well, first of all, there are many people there who need help – so it’s a very direct appeal to do something for people who may need you. I don’t have money, and I don’t have power, and I don’t have political influence – but what I can do, together with many other people, is, first, to acknowledge the need for cultural discourse. Very often all the discourse that is left to those people in post-conflict cities is about everyday needs, or maybe some rebuilding of political institutions; but culture is always at the end of the story, at the end of the line. What we can do is provide them with discourse, give them a certain vitality, as we did in Ramallah once, in Bosnia once, in Vilnius once – and even as we did at the feet of the Statue of Liberty once. If a city is in trouble, sometimes it’s good to organize dialogue, regardless of the subject matter – dialogue as a goal in itself.

Of course, the second stage is the content – the subject matter of the dialogue. And for cities like Beirut or Prishtina, a very obvious subject matter is reclaiming the public domain. If there is a situation, as there is in many post-conflict cities, where political parties are extremely weak or even nonexistent, and where private citizens, sometimes criminals, have taken over the public domain because no one feels responsible – there are no owners, so to speak – then it is good to arrive quickly, and to figure out what the public domain can mean in that city.

Beirut, especially now, seems to be a culture that is divided among factions. We’re trying to set up some projects in Beirut, and in the entirety of Lebanon, to specifically address the question of public domain. Or in Prishtina, for instance, there is an incredibly strong tendency to let the public domain be grasped not just by private interests, but by mafia, by criminals. So real estate is no longer an off-spin of the need to build; real estate becomes a modality of corruption, or an exemplification of corrupt wheelings and dealings.

In that sense, it is important to be there, and to acknowledge the work of local architects, designers, civil servants: what they are doing is extremely important, and can be a model for a global discourse. It can be something that we learn from all over the world – because there are so many of those cities, and there is an increasing amount of those cities, that need to learn these lessons.

So we try to go there, to acknowledge the problems, sometimes to help – with just ideas – and to give it exposure; but also to give the local protagonists a certain momentum by connecting them to the international discourse. And if you live in Beirut, or Prishtina, or Ramallah, it might be an incredible thing to feel connected to a more general international discourse.

BLDGBLOG: When you go there, who exactly are you networking with? Architects? Civil servants?

Bouman: When we decided to go to these places and to organize a dialogue there, we started a practice called RSVP Events. We published an invitation to participate, and we just mentioned the place and the date and the subject matter. People who felt responsible, or who were interested, and who might show up on that date, could react by way of email. After collecting the people who might be interested, we started an email dialogue with this group. And the background of those people was always different – you might find an activist group, or a cultural institution, or a student association, or a school, and they would turn out to be the main provider of content, or the main provider of people, to help. So it’s always different.

In Ramallah, we did a conversation with an organization specifically responsible for heritage in Palestine – in the West Bank – which was a very unexpected turn of events. In Zagreb we worked with a group of students. In Vilnius we were at an art museum. It’s really not fixed – it’s an open system – and it should be that way.

We are trying to set up a new series this year, and, like Beirut and Kosovo, we are planning on going to Ulaanbaator, to Chennai, to Taichung, to Tijuana – different places in borderline situations – and I’m very curious who will eventually help us. We have no institutional connections yet, but we need some; that will help us find a larger audience. We urgently need, always, the email lists, and the local groups that may sustain an event like that.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, as far as your new job goes – becoming Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute on April 1, 2007 – what are your specific plans?

Bouman: [laughs] That’s a huge question – and it’s a question I’m still in the middle of answering. I haven’t found the words for it yet.

Mainly, my role there will be in the spirit of taking architecture as a cultural medium, not just as a profession – taking architecture as a way of thinking, as a metaphor for society, as a medium for culture, and as a very rich historical discipline that can address larger issues. Architecture is more than just serving the spatial needs of society, or providing technical solutions by professionals. Architecture is done by professionals, but that shouldn’t inhibit it to ask the questions of an amateur – very open, curious questions that are larger than just the service, or the facilities, the professional interests of that discipline.

Most of the time, when you find a podium, it is outside the discipline – and, as I said, that’s still successful – but I often wonder why architecture doesn’t seize the opportunity to make itself much more legitimate – more useful, in a way. I think presenting architecture as a potential, a capacity, to pose big questions and to draft agendas that are larger than architecture itself might be a good characterization of things I have in mind.

• • •

With special thanks to Benedict Clouette, of Columbia University’s C-LAB, for setting this interview up and assisting me with images (all unlabeled images come from Volume); and to Ole Bouman for taking the time to talk.

Architecture and Climate Change: An Interview with Ed Mazria

[Image: (Right) Ed Mazria, photographed by Doug Hoeschler for Metropolis].

Last year, Ed Mazria and his New Mexico-based non-profit organization, Architecture 2030, revealed that architecture – or the building sector, more generally – is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide.
To help prevent “catastrophic” climate change, then, the building sector must become carbon neutral. Reaching that state before the year 2030 is what Mazria has dubbed the 2030 Challenge.
In an effort to speed things along, Mazria will be co-hosting an event, on February 20th, called the 2010 Imperative. This will be a “global emergency teach-in” broadcast live on the web from New York City. The 2010 Imperative – discussed in more detail, below – has been specifically organized around the idea that “ecological literacy [must] become a central tenet of design education,” and that “a major transformation of the academic design community must begin today.”
I recently spoke to Mazria about climate change, sustainable design, and carbon neutrality; about the present state, and future direction, of architectural education; about suburban development, Wal-Mart, and SUVs; and about the 2030 Challenge itself.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, how did you choose the specific targets of the 2030 Challenge?

Ed Mazria: Well, let’s see. The way we developed the 2030 Challenge was by working backward from the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that scientists were telling us we needed to reach by 2050. Working backwards from those reductions, and looking at, specifically, the building sector – which is responsible for about half of all emissions – you can see what we need to do today. You can see the targets that we need to reach so we can avoid hitting what the scientists have called catastrophic climate change.

If you do that, you see that we need an immediate, 50% reduction in fossil fuel, greenhouse gas-emitting energy in all new building construction. And since we renovate about as much as we build new, we need a 50% reduction in renovation, as well. If you then increase that reduction by 10% every five years – so that by 2030 all new buildings use no greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel energy to operate – then you reach a state that’s called carbon neutral. And you get there by 2030. That way we meet the targets that climate scientists have set out for us.

That’s how we came up with the 2030 Challenge – meaning a 50% reduction today, and going to carbon neutral by 2030.

[Image: A chart of Architecture 2030’s goals; via Metropolis. Graphic also available as a PDF].

BLDGBLOG: When you say that the building sector is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, though, do you mean that in a direct or an indirect sense? Because surely houses aren’t just sitting there emitting carbon dioxide all day – it’s the power plants that those houses are connected to.

Mazria: It’s direct. The number is actually 48% of total US energy consumption that can be attributed to the building sector, most of which – 40% of total consumption – can be attributed just to building operations. That’s heating, lighting, cooling, and hot water. There are others – running pumps and things like that. But 40% of total US energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed just to building operations.

BLDGBLOG: What’s the other 8%?

Mazria: The other 8% is greenhouse gas emissions released in producing the materials for buildings – materials that architects can specify – as well as during the construction process itself.

But the major part, you see – 40% – is design. Every time we design a building, we set up its energy consumption pattern and its greenhouse gas emissions pattern for the next 50-100 years. That’s why the building sector and the architecture sector is so critical. It takes a long time to turn over – whereas the transportation sector, on wheels, in this country, turns over once every twelve years.

[Image: “U.S. Energy Consumption by Sector. A reorganization of existing data – combining the energy required to run residential, commercial, and industrial buildings along with the embodied energy of industry-produced materials like carpet, tile, and hardware – exposes architecture as the hidden polluter.” Graphic by Criswell Lappin, via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, you’ve pointed out elsewhere that SUVs only represent about 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US – yet they receive the brunt of the media’s attention and anger. The real culprit is wastefully designed architecture.

Mazria: People must remember, though, that this doesn’t let the US automobile industry off the hook! Cars and SUVs are still part of the problem – and we need to attack that part of the problem.

And there are solutions. One of the solutions, for example, is to use plug-in hybrid flex-fuel technology. Plug-in meaning you can collect energy on your rooftop, with photovoltaic cells, and then plug your car into a battery at night, and drive 30-50 miles on a charge. Then you can use hybrid technology to get incredible miles. Then you can use flex-fuel: you put high-cellulose alcohol or ethanol into the tank, rather than fossil fuels. So there are solutions in that sector.

BLDGBLOG: It seems like the 2030 Challenge has met with a lot of enthusiasm from both the American Institute of Architects and the US Conference of Mayors. Is that the case, or were you hoping for a better response?

Mazria: The response was immediate, and very gratifying. Right when we issued the challenge, in January of 2006, the American Institute of Architects adopted it for all its 78,000 members. That did two things. One, it got the wheels turning within the architecture and building sector to figure out how to meet the Challenge. Two, it began getting resources and information to architects and to designers about how to change course.

Just as important, the US Conference of Mayors then adopted the 2030 Challenge in a resolution that was passed at their annual convention. That was passed unanimously. The Challenge was adopted for all buildings in all cities. That’s very important.

[Image: The interior of Ed Mazria’s New Mexico home, designed by Mazria’s own firm; photographed by Doug Hoeschler for Metropolis. “Masonry walls and floors in the dining and living areas absorb heat and provide cool interior surfaces in summer and warmth in the winter,” we read].

BLDGBLOG: As far as implementing the Challenge goes, is that as simple as sending out a new pamphlet to housing contractors that explains how they can change their building techniques? Or is it as complex as starting whole new university degrees?

Mazria: Well, first you have to inform. People really have to be aware of this issue. Universities don’t really understand their role in this whole situation. So the first step is to inform – and we’ve actually gone a long way in that. We’ve done a lot of magazine articles and other publications; we’ve done public speaking; and there’s also our website – so we’re making an impact.

What we’re really doing is changing the conversation. Through changing – or expanding – the conversation, we’ve been able to issue the 2030 Challenge. We would not have been able to issue that had we not changed the conversation. So we issued the Challenge, which was picked up by the profession and then by the cities, and that was absolutely critical.

Now businesses are picking it up. For instance, at the same time that we were issuing the Challenge, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development came out with a call for carbon neutral buildings by 2050. So we’ve asked the AIA to begin a dialogue with them to get that done by 2030, instead.

Also, since that time, I gave a talk at a conference hosted by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. ICLEI‘s membership consists of about 475 cities worldwide. It’s kind of a global counterpart to the US Conference of Mayors – though many cities in the US are members. At the end of that conference, they adopted the 2030 Challenge. They’re now bringing it up with their global Board of Directors, to discuss adopting the Challenge worldwide. Actually, adopted is not the right word – they incorporated the Challenge into their targets.

BLDGBLOG: Do you think the speed with which the Challenge has been adopted reflects a kind of embarrassment over the failure of the Kyoto Protocol?

Mazria: That’s possible. It’s also now more accepted that the science is firm; people are accepting that the debate is essentially over, and that we must move from debate to action. But scientists have given us a very, very small window of opportunity here. We have essentially ten years to begin to get this situation under control. Otherwise we’ll hit tipping points beyond which there will be very little anyone can do to influence things. So there’s a new sense of urgency.

What has been lacking so far are specifics on how to attack the problem. Most initiatives are general, without real teeth behind them, saying that we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by this much, by this date. But I think that the people who have adopted these initiatives are now looking for ways to implement them, to meet their own targets.

The 2030 Challenge gives them a very specific way to do this – and I think that’s the main reason why this has taken hold as quickly as it has.

BLDGBLOG: In the meantime, you’ve seen corporations like Wal-Mart try to reinvent themselves as pro-green, pro-sustainability firms, because they’ve seen that there is a profit motive. It makes sense for the environment – but it also makes sense for shareholders. The shift isn’t necessarily altruistic.

Mazria: I think it’s going mainstream for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is what we just talked about: the urgency of the issue. There are many people out there with a conscience, and they think about the future rather than just their own immediate needs. They think about their children and their grandchildren. I think that’s moving some of this.

But I think you’re right: I think another part of this is essentially self-serving, that going green may give you a leg up on the competition. It may save you money. It may enhance your image in the community, which means your business can maneuver with more ease and fewer restrictions.

The real point is: whatever the motivation, it’s going in the right direction.

[Image: Skylit gymnasium in Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Santa Fe; designed by Mazria Inc. Photo by Robert Reck, via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: So what roles do the architecture and design schools play in all this?

Mazria: An AIA COTE report came out last year, called Ecology and Design. It was a year-plus long study by a panel of AIA COTE members. Every school should read this.

From page 43: “Schools and teachers are discovering and creating new ways to incorporate sustainability into studios and other coursework. There appears to be more out there than there was 5 or 10 years ago and the efforts are deeper, more layered, and more complex.” But this next part is what’s important: “But our sample includes not a single example where the issues have informed a true transformation of the core curriculum. As promising as many of the courses are, it must be said that sustainable design remains a fringe activity in the schools.”

It gets worse:

Many of the most highly rated architecture schools show little interest in sustainable design, according to our research. The Ivy League schools, which consistently draw top applicants, have not made a noticeable effort to incorporate environmental strategies into their coursework. With few exceptions – notably California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, our top winner – the same may be said of all the programs listed in the 2005 Design Intelligence ranking of top schools. The implication is that ecology is not considered a design agenda but, rather, an ethical or technical concern. If the best programs, instructors, and students do not embrace ecology as an inspiration for good design, what chance does this endeavor have to transform the industry?

Now I want to turn to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, their “top winner.” This is Cal Poly: “the most significant drawback of the Sustainable Environments program is the fact that it is an elective minor and not an integral part of the core curriculum. Though enrollment in program grows every year, currently only about 20 percent of CAED students take part.” Now, listen to this: “Dean Jones, who is new to the school, sees the Sustainable Environments minor as a pilot program for the entire department: ‘It is a long-term goal to integrate this kind of approach within the core curriculum.'” Long-term.

You have ten years basically to change course across the entire building sector, and the top-ranking ecological design program has a sustainable development minor. The top school. And it’s a long-term goal for them. So you get the picture.

School’s must transform – and they must transform immediately. So we’ve organized what we term the 2010 Imperative. That will explain to all the schools what we think needs to be done today, immediately, as well as beginning with the next school year – and, to complete the process, what needs to be done by 2010.

By 2010 we’re looking at total ecological literacy in architectural education.

BLDGBLOG: The 2010 Imperative is a “global emergency teach-in” scheduled to occur in about three weeks’ time. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Mazria: The teach-in will happen on February 20th. It will be a live webcast from the New York Academy of Sciences, from 12-noon to 3:30. It will have four speakers: Dr. James Hansen of NASA will talk about the science and the implications of global warming, and the urgency for action. I’ll talk about the building sector and what we need to do – and why – and how education is a critical piece of this whole thing. Susan Szenasy will do the introductions, and talk about all the design disciplines. She’ll also moderate the panel at the end. And Chris Luebkeman will give a talk called “Doing Is Believing” – which is pretty interesting – and he’ll talk about Arup‘s projects all over the world. That should take about an hour and a half.

Then it will be open to questions and answers – and general discussion – from people typing-in, live, from anywhere in the world. So it’s as participatory as we can get. We’ll also have a live audience of about 300-plus, made up of people from the nine New York City-area design schools.

BLDGBLOG: Have universities and institutions outside of New York signed up to participate?

Mazria: The teach-in has been supported by the ACSA, the AIA Committee on the Environment, the US Green Building Council, and a lot of other schools. We’ve received emails now – probably about 15,000 – from people saying that they’re going to log on. We’ve got schools that are going to be canceling classes that day and creating full-day events around the teach-in – so it’s very exciting. We’re getting responses from everywhere: Berkeley, Harvard, Cal-Poly-San Luis Obispo, UW-Milwaukee. 50 to 100 come in a day, including practitioners and architecture offices that are going to get their whole office to participate. Those offices will also get continuing education credits for their architects.

You know, you can give a lecture to 1000 people, or to 500 people, or to 300 people – but this way you’re talking to tens of thousands of people, in one day. It’s a really good way to use the technology to get the word out.

BLDGBLOG: Some of these changes are going to require a pretty major conceptual shift, I think. You’re moving from an artistic or historical approach to architecture – where architecture is something of an expressive design medium – and you’re going to an approach that treats the built environment as something whose effect is scientifically measurable. Ecologically speaking, a design can literally be good or bad, no matter what it looks like, or whether or not the client likes it. Do you see this as a possible issue down the road?

Mazria: I think you can incorporate both personal expression and aesthetics into ecological literacy. Ecological literacy just gives you another tool with which to design. Architecture is not just pure sculpture; it’s not just pure function; it’s not just pure performance – it’s all of those. And so what must be added and integrated into the design curriculum is this notion of ecological literacy. You cannot design anymore without being literate in this area – otherwise you’re doing more harm than good.

BLDGBLOG: Beyond the teach-in, how do you anticipate getting this message into the schools and design offices? Is this a question of issuing textbooks and PDFs, or just organizing more events?

Mazria: You’re not going to do it one school at a time. There are too many schools. You have hundreds of thousands of students being educated today, and they are not fully ecologically literate. They don’t have a total grasp of the global situation we’re facing, and what must happen next. And it’s not just the students – their instructors aren’t fully aware of this, either.

So we propose to do this in two ways. One is an immediate method, and one is a short-term method. The immediate method is well-defined: we will address every design school in the world, globally, and we will ask every instructor to add one sentence to every problem that they issue in their design studios. That’s all we’re asking them to do. We’re not asking them to change the assignments – we’re asking them to add one sentence.

That sentence is: “That the project be designed to engage the environment in a way that dramatically reduces or eliminates the need for fossil fuels.”

This will set off a chain reaction, globally, throughout the student population. Because what the students will do at the outset of a new assignment is they will research the issue. They’ll then come back to the class with all the information they can find – and all the information, by the way, is available on the internet. They have access very, very quickly to this information. They’ll then bring everyone else in that class, including the instructor, up to speed on the issues, the design strategies, and the technologies that are available and part of the design palette. Out of that, universities and professional studios will become instruments for transforming design.

If you bring creative problem-solving to the issue, many, many different ways of addressing the problem will come about – in ways we can’t even imagine. And that’s the beauty of making this change immediately.

We can then work on a systematic approach, between 2007 and 2010, to bring true ecological literacy to all the design schools.

[Image: Materials Testing Facility, Vancouver, designed by Busby Perkins + Will. The design “incorporates recycled and reused materials extensively throughout the building,” and other “sustainable (‘green’) building design concepts, such as natural ventilation and solar shading have also been utilized.” Via Architecture 2030].

BLDGBLOG: In that same time period, do you plan to approach large-scale home developers, like Toll Brothers or KB Home, to inspire environmental change on a larger and more immediate scale?

Mazria: You have to remember that we’re a very small organization! [laughs] I think, though, that a growing movement around these issues, and around the 2030 Challenge, is beginning to take shape, so I would imagine that there are many other people in other industries who may begin to embrace these changes. For example, there’s an organization called ConSol, and they address the mass-market housing industry in terms of the issues we just talked about. There’s the Urban Land Institute. There’s the Congress for the New Urbanism. They all specifically address how such issues affect development.

BLDGBLOG: What about designing a kind of prototype development, or model village, that might serve to exemplify the 2030 Challenge?

Mazria: To teach by design? I think that’s happening. On our website, we have a whole section on projects that begin to meet the targets, and we do have buildings that fit that category, that we’ve designed over the years. In fact, in the 1980s, we designed the Mt. Airy Library that reduced its consumption of fossil fuels over an average building of that type, in that region, by over 80%. Just through design.

In fact, in the early 1980s, right after the first energy crisis, the US Department of Energy sponsored anywhere between twelve and eighteen architects around the country to design very low-energy buildings. I would say probably every one of those architects demonstrated that you could get reductions of 50-80% just through design! There were many, many buildings built in the late 1970s, and during the 1980s, using passive solar design, and day-lighting principles, that actually put those buildings off the grid.

So you have a wealth of information generated way back then. It wasn’t until oil went down to $10 a barrel, and the Reagan Administration came in and basically killed off all these initiatives, that we really came to rely on fossil fuels. Now our buildings are sealed up; they have no real integrated relationship with the exterior environment. When we talk about a connection to the environment in architecture today, for the past 30 or 50 years we’ve just been talking about a visual connection. We haven’t been talking about a real, integrated, energy-based connection between the building and its environment. And that’s where the term open systems comes from – and where we need to be headed.

[Image: School of Nursing and Student Community Center, Houston, designed by BNIM. From their website: “Goals of increased air quality, increased natural daylighting, reduction of polluting emissions and run-off, and increased user satisfaction and productivity were achieved using the LEED® rating system.” Via Architecture 2030].

BLDGBLOG: If you drew up actual plans for a carbon neutral city of the future, though, wouldn’t that give people a clearer sense of what all this will look like? Which would then help both the clients and the architects understand what they need to do next?

Mazria: I think that’s a really good question – because having some imagery for what we’re talking about is very important in terms of us acting. But for only one person to come up with a plan or an image – that might actually do more damage than good. I think you need a whole range of aesthetics and ideas to take shape, and what shakes out will be those ideas and solutions that work. I think tying it to just one visual image would not be helpful.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also talked about the importance of new design software – software that can model, in real-time, the projected energy-use of an architectural design. That would help architects meet their emissions targets. Has there been any progress on that front?

Mazria: Every time we make a decision – we reorient the building, we twist it, we add glazing, we use this kind of material, we add a shading device, we reposition or realign a wall – we have to have, in the corner, the energy implications of that. It should be as simple as just two numbers: one would indicate whether we’re meeting our target of a 50% reduction, or a 60% reduction, or a 70% reduction – how close we are to hitting that target. The other would indicate the actual embodied energy in the materials and construction of the building. If we had those two numbers as we design our buildings, then, intuitively, as designers, we would understand the results of our actions.

These design tools are a critical piece, and the major players are AutoDesk, Google – we need them to take this on almost as an emergency effort, to put this on a fast-track. In fact, Green Building Studio is already working diligently in this area. Students can send their design over to them and get an analysis back in, I think, fifteen minutes – for free. But the companies that supply us with these tools really need to step up to the plate. The federal government can help, or the larger states that have resources of money can help, by putting some dollars into R&D and getting those tools out there immediately.

BLDGBLOG: Could you issue a kind of Software Challenge to help kick things into gear?

Mazria: We could. I think that, because the AIA adopted the 2030 Challenge, you would see now that the federal government and the larger states – and the cities, and the companies – would not be far behind. Adopting the Challenge was critical in getting more movement in this area. I think as more cities adopt the Challenge, and want to understand how they can implement it, they’re going to require certain kinds of software, and the software companies will be competing to supply that software.

Right now we’re in the process of creating a huge market for those tools. If the Challenge gets adopted by the schools, then even the schools will be looking for this software.

We’re helping to put a market in place – so the software companies will have to act.

[Image: Energy Savings Buildings, Albuquerque; designed by Mazria Inc. Photo via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, you mentioned mayors earlier. How has your experience been with other political leaders, at different levels of government?

Mazria: It’s actually gone quite well – the mayors are highly interested and motivated. I was in Washington yesterday, actually, talking to Senators and to members of Congress about getting federal support. That would mean having federal buildings lead the way – because the federal government does quite a lot of building – probably about 3% of total construction – and we’re asking for all federally-funded buildings to meet the Challenge targets.

We’re also asking for incentives to help meet these targets, until everyone gets up to speed. In some cases there are costs involved, so if you provide incentives you can help accelerate the adoption of the Challenge – so the quicker we get incentives into place, the better.

But there’s now a lot of interest on Capitol Hill for what we’re talking about.

BLDGBLOG: Is that because of the elections this past November?

Mazria: It is.

We just don’t have that much time left. We really have to work absolutely as hard as we can right now to get things done. We need everyone – I mean everyone – really pulling in the same direction, and not getting discouraged. You can make things happen. Everyone has a role in making things happen. I can’t emphasize this enough: we need everyone. It’s the people who respond to the situation that will make it happen – and that’s who we’re looking to reach.

This is doable. It’s a doable job, and I think all the pieces are known; we understand them – we know what needs to be done. We only have to do it now. We now know exactly where we need to be; we know what the reductions are; we know how to get them; we know where to go for the incentives – we just have to make it happen.

The time for small, incremental changes has passed. This is not a top-down action; that’s too slow. This change has to come from across the universities, the industries, and the entire political spectrum.

• • •

With huge thanks to Ed Mazria for his interest, efforts, and time. Thanks, as well, to Quilian Riano, for helping set up this discussion.

[Note: This interview was simultaneously posted on both Worldchanging and Inhabitat].

Divided Kingdom

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 32, from Rob Gardiner’s inspired photographic project, Walking the Circle Line, London].

Rupert Thomson’s recent novel Divided Kingdom is set in a world where the whole of Britain has been broken up into four sectors, the population itself forcibly “rearranged” according to emotional temperment.

Well-disciplined over-achievers are sent to one quarter; despair-wracked introspectionists another; pick-up truck driving nutters prone to violence take a third (I came I saw I lost my temper, its postcards read); and some other group I’m overlooking at the moment gets the last bit.

Walls and fences begin to appear; soon people complain of “border sickness” as they are further hemmed in by a series of Internal Security Acts. “Throughout the divided kingdom,” we read, “the walls of concrete blocks had been reinforced with watch-towers, axial crosses and even, in some areas, with mine-fields, which rendered contact between the citizens of different countries a physical impossibility.”

London itself is “divided so as to create four new capitals,” and each major bridge over the Thames is “fortified, along with watch-towers at either end and a steel dragnet underneath.” However, “in stretches where the river itself had become the border all the bridges had been destroyed. The roads that had once led to them stopped at the water’s edge, and stopped abruptly. They seemed to stare into space, no longer knowing what they were doing there or why they had come.”

[Image: From Under Blackfriars Bridge, London, by Rob Gardiner].

There is even a “tourist settlement called the Border Experience” constructed near one of the crossings – apparently learning from Venturi, complete “with theme hotels, fast-food restaurants and souvenir shops.”

In one sector, all the motorways “had been converted into venues for music festivals or sporting events, and others had been fortified, then turned into borders, their tall grey lights illuminating dogs and guards instead of traffic, but for the most part they had simply been allowed to decay, their signs leaning at strange angles, their service stations inhabited by mice and birds, their bridges choked with weeds and brambles or, as in this case, collapsing altogether. In time, motorways would become so overgrown that they would only be visible from the air, half-hidden monuments to an earlier civilization, like pyramids buried in a jungle.”

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 16, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

While still a young boy, the narrator develops “border games” with a mate; they “prowl among the cement-mixers and scaffolding poles” next to “a section of the motorway that was in the process of being dug up,” and they use cardboard tubes to spy on guards stationed several acres away.

In any case, parts of Divided Kingdom read like descriptions of Dubai – or what Mike Davis refers to as Dubai’s “monstrous caricature of futurism,” as that city strives “to conquer the architectural record-books.”

There is something called the Underground Ocean, for instance. Thomson’s narrator and his entourage are led down into a basement warehouse, where they stand beside a lifeguard on a boardwalk in the dark:

The lifeguard’s voice floated dreamily above us. Any second now, he said, the scene would be illuminated, but first he wanted us to try and picture what it was that we were about to see. I peered out into the dark, my eyes gradually adjusting. A pale strip curved away to my right – the beach, I thought – and at the edge furthest from me I could just make out a shimmer, the faintest of oscillations. Could that be where the water met the sand? Beyond that, the blackness resisted me, no matter how carefully I looked.
“Lights,” the lifeguard said.
I wasn’t the only delegate to let out a gasp. My first impression was that night had turned to day – but instantly, as if hours had passed in a split-second. At the same time, the space in which I had been standing had expanded to such a degree that I no longer appeared to be indoors. I felt unstead,y, slightly sick. Eyes narrowed against the glare, I saw a perfect blue sky arching overhead. Before me stretched an ocean, just as blue. It was calm the way lakes are sometimes calm, not a single crease or wrinkle. Creamy puffs of cloud hung suspended in the distance. Despite the existence of a horizon, I couldn’t seem to establish a sense of perspective. After a while my eyes simply refused to engage with the view, and I had to look away.
“Now for the waves,” the lifeguard said.

It is interesting to note that, at the end of the book, in the Acknowledgements, Thomson cites S,M,L,XL by Rem Koolhaas as having been a literary resource.

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 52, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

While it seems rather obvious that the book is not meant to present the next likely development in national governance or urban planning, many readers – i.e. Amazon reviewers – seem upset by the premise, and repeatedly point out that this “could never happen.” But surely that’s not the point? As with all of Thomson’s novels the writing is exquisite, at times dreamlike yet descriptively precise; the book is also one of the few examples I can think of where I actually wished the book had been substantially longer (it’s 336 pages).

If you do read it, let me know what you think.

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 64, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

(Thanks to Steve & Valerie Twilley for the book! Meanwhile, for more of Rob Gardiner’s photographs, see Gardiner’s blog; I’m a particular fan of his London work).

The First Million

I’m immensely pleased to announce BLDGBLOG’s first event, on January 13th in Los Angeles, to be hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

The event is meant as a way to mark BLDGBLOG’s recent move to Los Angeles; to kick-start the new year in a conversationally exciting way; to celebrate being one of Yahoo’s top 25 web picks of 2006; and to meet a few of the one million readers who have now clicked through to read BLDGBLOG (some much-needed statistical caveats about that statement appear below) – and, thus, an event seemed like a good idea. It also just sounds fun.

So this Saturday, January 13th, from 3pm-5pm, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City, Los Angeles, I’ll be introducing five speakers: Matthew Coolidge, Mary-Ann Ray, Robert Sumrell, Christine Wertheim, and Margaret Wertheim, who will speak for 15-20 minutes each.

Matthew Coolidge is Director of CLUI; as such, he’s one of the larger influences on BLDGBLOG, up there with J.G. Ballard, John McPhee, and Piranesi – so it’s immensely exciting for me to have him as a participant, and equally exciting that he and the CLUI staff are willing to host this event in their space. If you’re curious about CLUI’s work, consider purchasing their new book: Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or just stop by the Center at some point and say hello.

Back in 1997, then, I found myself in Rotterdam where I went to the Netherlands Architecture Institute several days in a row to use their architecture library; the NAi’s exhibit at the time was about Daniel Libeskind. While this proves that I’m possibly the world’s lamest backpacker, it also resulted in my stumbling across a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets, a book I highly recommend to just about anyone – and a book that may or may not even be responsible for my current interest in architecture.

So when I saw last week that Mary-Ann still lives in LA, and that her firm had actually worked on the facade of the Museum of Jurassic Technology – located right next door to the Center for Land Use Interpretation – I immediately gave her a call; and now she’s a speaker at the event.

[Image: Mary-Ann Ray, from Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets].

Robert Sumrell, meanwhile, is co-director of AUDC. AUDC’s work explores the fields of diffuse urbanism and network geography, whether that means analyzing Muzak as a form of spatial augmentation or photo-documenting the town of Quartzsite, Arizona.

Interestingly, Sumrell also works as a production designer for elaborate fashion shoots and other high-gloss, celebrity spectacles. If you’re a fan of Usher, for instance, don’t miss Sumrell’s Portfolio 2; if you like topless women surrounded by veils of smoke, see his Portfolio 1. I like Portfolio 1.

[Image: From Robert Sumrell’s Portfolio 4].

Then we come to Christine and Margaret Wertheim, co-directors of the Institute for Figuring, here in Los Angeles.

“The Institute’s interests,” they explain, “are twofold: the manifestation of figures in the world around us and the figurative technologies that humans have developed through the ages. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding, the tiling patterns of Islamic mosaics and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.”

Margaret will be presenting a hand-crocheted hyperbolic reef, “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft.” The reef is part craft object, part mathematical model in colored wool.

[Image: An example of “mega coral,” crocheted by Christine Wertheim].

Margaret is also an ace interviewer; don’t miss her conversation with Nicholas Gessler, for instance, collector of analogue computers. While you’re at it, don’t miss her “history of space from Dante to the internet”.

Meanwhile, Christine’s interests lie more in the realm of logic and its spatial representations. Christine has curated an upcoming show at the Museum of Jurassic Technology around the work of Shea Zellweger, an “outsider logician” and former hotel switchboard operator who developed a three-dimensional, internally rigorous representational system for logical processes.

Christine will thus be speaking on what could be called an illustrated spatial history of logic.

[Image: Part of Shea Zellweger’s logical alphabet; image courtesy of Shea Zellweger, via the Institute for Figuring].

Finally, the statistical caveats I mentioned above.

While it is true that my Sitemeter is now above one million – recording visitors to the site – it is also true that if you come to BLDGBLOG four times a week for a year, then you will be counted as 208 different people… So the accounting is a bit off.

Also, it is inarguably the case that at least 350,000 of those 1,000,000 visitors only visited one of the five following posts, which, thanks to Fark, Digg, MetaFilter, Boing Boing, etc., are overwhelmingly the most popular posts here: World’s largest diamond mine, Scientological Circles, The city as an avatar of itself, Transformer Houses, and Gazprom City.

Possible runners-up for that list – though those five really do take the cake – include, and I apologize for this blatantly self-indulgent yet strangely irresistible nostalgia trip: the interview with Simon Sellars, the interview with Simon Norfolk, the Aeneid-inspired look at offshore oil derricks, Chinese death vans, how to buy your own concrete utopia, Architectural Criticism, Where cathedrals go to die, the story of Joe Kittinger, London Topological, and L.A.’s high-tech world of traffic control. Actually, this one had a lot of readers, and the mud mosques were also quite popular…

But now I’ve wasted twenty minutes, assembling those links.

So I’ll link to others, instead. BLDGBLOG would still only be read by myself, my wife, and possibly two or three others if it hadn’t been for the early and/or ongoing enthusiasm of other websites who link in – including, but by no means limited to: Pruned, gravestmor, Archinect, things magazine, Inhabitat, Gridskipper, Boing Boing, Design Observer, Coudal, Artkrush, we make money not art, Subtopia, Ballardian, The Dirt, Apartment Therapy, Curbed LA and Curbed SF, City of Sound, Future Feeder, Archidose, Brand Avenue, Tropolism, hippoblog, Land+Living, Abstract Dynamics, Worldchanging, Warren Ellis, The Nonist, The Kircher Society, Conscientious, Centripetal Notion, and whoever it is that occasionally puts links to BLDGBLOG up on MetaFilter.

In any case, my final point is just to be honest and say that a million visitors is more like “a million visitors” – i.e. not quite a million visitors – and that, on top of that, many of those people only came through to see five or six particular posts in the first place. And that’s not even to mention the fact that many websites have more than a million visitors per month, and so the whole thing is not exactly awe-inspiring.

But who cares. If you’re in LA this weekend, consider dropping by; it’ll be a fun and casual event, not an academic conference, and you can tell me in person whether cone beats sphere.

(There’s also a full-size version of the event poster available).

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

The Weather Bowl

[Image: A passing Illinois lightning storm and supercell, the clouds peeling away to reveal evening stars; photo ©Extreme Instability/Mike Hollingshead. If you can overlook pet photos, meanwhile, don’t miss Hollingshead’s other storm work from 2006 and 2005 – including these Nebraskan auroras. While you’re at it, this storm sequence has some stunning, pre-storm landscape shots].

During a disastrously moderated talk at the MAK Center last night in West Hollywood, where the panelists could hardly get a word in edgewise because of the barely coherent, self-answering, 40-minute monologue of the moderator, Karl Chu briefly managed to say that he was interested in constructing and designing whole continents and weather systems.

Which got me thinking.

Given time, some digging equipment, a bit of geotechnical expertise, and loads of money, for instance, you could turn the entirety of greater Los Angeles into a weather bowl, dedicated to the recreation of famous storms. Install some rotating fans and open-air wind tunnels, build some deflection screens in the Hollywood Hills, scatter smaller fans and blowers throughout Culver City or overlooking Burbank, amplify the natural sea winds blowing in through Long Beach – and you could re-enact famous weather systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, reproducing hurricanes, even bringing back, for one night, the notorious storm that killed Shelley.

You consult your table of weather histories, choose your storm and go: fans deep in hillsides start turning, the wind tunnels roar, and lo! The exact speed and direction of Hurricane Andrew is unleashed. Seed the clouds a bit and reprogram the fans, and you can precisely reproduce the atmospheric conditions from the night William Blake was born. Or the ice storm that leveled electrical gantries outside Montreal, now whirling in a snow-blurred haze through Echo Park.

You could build competing weather colosseums in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Beijing. Every night new storms are reenacted, moving upward in scale and complexity. The storm Goethe saw as a nineteen year-old, contemplating European history, kills a family of seven outside Nanking. You soon get Weather Olympics, or a new Pritzker Prize for Best Weather Effects.

One day, a man consumed with nostalgia hacks the control program to recreate the exact breeze on which he once flew a kite over the Monbijouplatz in Berlin…

(For more on the exhibition now up at the MAK Center, download this PDF).